Dust: An Elysian Tail review for XBLA

Platform: Xbox Live Arcade
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Humble Hearts
Medium: Digital
Players: 1
Online: Leaderboards

Dust: An Elysian Tail is certainly an experience worth sharing with others, and marks what could arguably be called the only must-have title in this year?s Summer of Arcade line-up. While I?ve generally enjoyed the games I?ve played in SoA this year, Dust is definitely in a league of its own, and is at least a hell of way to close out the promotion.

So what is Dust? It?s essentially a Metroidvania style game, wherein you?ll control a 2D character dubbed Dust, partnered with a creature named Fidget, across a series of stages that involve branching paths, secret passages, and a whole slew of enemies to fight. It?s a little less Symphony of the Night, and more akin to Order of Ecclesia, in that you?re not exploring one huge map, but will go into smaller maps via an overworld screen.

The game looks absolutely gorgeous in motion, with animation that needs to be seen to be believed. I?m not necessarily a huge fan of the art style, particularly the voice over bits and character portrait interactions between talking characters, but when the action kicks in and you?re swinging your talking sword against enemies, chaining together massive combos and knocking them into the air for more hits, it?s hard to not be impressed by what you?re seeing. Everything flows so smoothly that this is about as cartoon-like as I?ve seen a 2D game manage to get.

Dust also features a hefty crafting system, with enemies that?ll drop crafting materials on a pretty frequent basis, but the blueprints for items tend to be a little rarer. Crafting is actually worthwhile here, as the items you can make are almost always better than what you?ll be able to buy at the point you earn them in the game.

Along with crafting, Dust has a full blown experience and leveling system, complete with stat points to allocate across different fields. There?s also an interesting system at play that keeps you from min-maxing your stats and potentially breaking the game a bit, which isn?t a bad idea and helps to get things fairly balanced.

Combat is really one of the major areas where Dust stands out though. While it might feel a little button mashy at first, what with a standard two button attack system, you?ll quickly come across enemy types that require you to be a bit more decisive in how you approach them. Certain enemies will armor up and block, and often they?ll roll around you to attack from behind, causing you to be on your toes and make use of the various combos you can perform. In addition, your constant companion Fidget has her own attacks to perform, and when done in conjunction with your sword twirling technique can rain down fire, lightning and other magical attacks that?ll cause your combo chain numbers to swell to great heights.

With exploration and combat being such a great experience in Dust, you?ll have an extremely hard time putting the controller down. It also helps that the story is entertaining, and voice acting is pretty great. Fidget did grate my nerves a bit, but overall there?s a pretty great mix of humor and seriousness that never feels groan inducing or particularly overwrought. It?s also a fairly lengthy experience top to bottom, so you?re definitely getting your money?s worth out of this one.

And like the visuals, the soundtrack is exceptionally well done, and something that would be worth picking up as a standalone item. There?s great variety among the different map types, both in look and sound, and each area stands out as a unique experience, complete with its own enemy types, hazards and unique boss encounters to deal with.

And then there?s the whole side quest aspect of the game, along with the unique hidden characters that tie back into previous XBLA releases. When you start to unlock more of the overworld locations, you?ll run into villages and other characters that?ll offer up optional quests to tackle that end up feeling pretty unique, and rarely devolve into quests that involve grinding against particular monsters over and over again. Instead you?ll usually be on the lookout for unique items or other characters hidden in various maps, oftentimes finding that different side quests are tied together in unexpected ways. Besides the quests and hidden characters, each map is also filled with secrets to uncover, which run the gamut from treasure chests to battle arena like areas that tie into the game?s leaderboard system.

Needless to say, I?m pretty happy with Dust: An Elysian Tail, and suspect that you will be too if you have yet to lay hands on the game. It?s a great, 2D experience that harkens back to the popular Metroidvania sub-genre of adventures games, but manages to blaze its own path and stand out as a wholly unique experience. There?s certainly little like it on XBLA, and I highly suggest picking it up.

Grade: A